Blue Rock Forest drilling put on hold – for now

Zanesville, Ohio (AP) — A federal agency has halted plans to auction off mineral rights for shale drilling in a state forest in eastern Ohio after state officials complained they weren’t consulted.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management had planned a Dec. 12 public auction to lease 4,525 acres in the Blue Rock State Forest for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. But the plan was put on hold after Ohio DNR officials told the agency that they had not approved it.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that environmental officials applauded the decision, but the drilling in the Muskingum County forest may still happen.

DNR spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle says the state agency will now gather information to make sure threats to the forest and wildlife are minimized by any drilling.

The federal government owns the mineral rights underneath the state-owned land, and previously Robert Gillcash, a Bureau of Land Management spokesman, said the DNR gave its consent to nominate the parcels for lease in what he said is standard procedure.

McCorkle said in an email to the newspaper that the state owns only a minority share in the forest’s mineral rights and so BLM has sole jurisdiction on how they are used. The state will be required to give the owner of the mineral rights “reasonable access” to the land for drilling, she said.

Environmental advocacy groups, including the Buckeye Forest Council, wondered why neither federal nor state officials took any additional steps to inform the public.

Council attorney Nathan Johnson noted that the bureau’s proposal to sell oil and gas leases on state-owned lands with federally owned minerals was posted online in March with a 30-day comment period.

“Unfortunately, it seems nobody in the state of Ohio got the message,” he said.

The newspaper reported the online proposal doesn’t name Blue Rock outright on primary documentation, only in secondary documents accessed through the website.

Gillcash said the bureau followed rules for public notification and scheduled the auction only after the DNR consented.

But McCorkle said the state allowed the federal agency onto the land last fall to conduct an environmental assessment but had heard nothing more.

“The Bureau of Land Management has not shared their environmental assessment with us, nor did they notify us of their public comment period,” she told the paper in an email.

McCorkle said that the resource department spoke to the federal agency last week about the miscommunication. In response, the DNR has instituted a new rule requiring consent for such projects to be provided in a formal letter from the director, not verbally or through email, she said.

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